FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Before the pandemic, people in Washington County debated whether to expand the jail to reduce overcrowding. COVID-19 forced administrators to make emergency changes to thin out the jail population, and local experts have varying thoughts on what the criminal justice system will look like moving forward.
“We, of course, have a constitutional charge for the safety and well-being of our detainees and employees,” said Sheriff Tim Helder.
Jail administrators acted quickly when the pandemic first hit, Helder said.
“[We focused] primarily on those that were probably in that target range who were most vulnerable to the virus should they contract it,” Helder said.
Prior to COVID-19, overcrowding plagued the jail. At its peak, some inmates had to sleep on the floor. Health experts said in tight spaces like what’s experienced in jail, COVID-19 can spread quickly. Helder joined Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett and others to identify non-violent people who can be released.
“We brought our numbers down as low as they’ve been since we moved into this facility in 2005,” Helder said.
Durrett said targeted detainees meet certain criteria.
“They’re picked up on non-violent offenses,” Durrett said. “They’re either from Washington County or a surrounding county. They don’t appear to be a flight risk.”
The jail population dropped from more than 750 in Feb. 2020 to nearly 200 fewer detainees this year. Durrett said an electronic monitoring system implemented during the pandemic will likely continue after society returns overwhelmingly to pre-pandemic standards.
“Some people who have failed to appear on nonviolent offenses can be released on an ankle monitor,” Durrett said.
When it comes to criminal courts, the pandemic has had perhaps the biggest impact. Cases have backed up significantly.
“That means that victims are having to wait longer and longer to have their cases come to court,” Durrett said.
Matt Bender is a University of Arkansas law professor and defense attorney. He said everybody gets hurt when cases aren’t processed quickly enough.
“This is where I’m concerned over what’s going to happen the next few months,” Bender said. “There should be pressure on prosecutors in criminal cases to offer good deals to low-level cases and to prioritize these major cases,” Bender said.
Bender said he thinks some parts of the court system can get a boost from virtual appearances utilizing programs like Zoom, which have become a standard during the pandemic.
“That way people can check in on their phones, from their computers without having to take a whole day off work,” Bender said. “I think that’s probably going to become more common.”
Before the pandemic, Helder and others and some others advocated for expanding the jail. That mindset hasn’t changed.
“I’ve been doing this long enough to know that we’re going to have to do something,” Helder said.
Looking forward, he pandemic forced administrators to greenlight big changes—something that could be a positive once the pandemic ends.
“COVID-19 was a horrible thing, but in this circumstance, it gave us time to catch our breath and implement some programs that’ve proven to work to keep some of our numbers down,” Helder said.